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The Unwritten rules of airline travel - flying etiquette laid bare

HomeNews hubTravel NewsThe Unwritten rules of airline travel - flying etiquette laid bare

With increased security, crowded airports, and profit-minded airlines squeezing as many passengers as possible into that metal tube, no wonder air rage is on the rise. Flying can seem like an etiquette minefield, but here’s what you need to know to ensure your journey runs smoothly.

Take safety seriously

Long queues and extra time at security are an unfortunate reality. It’s tedious to empty your pockets and separate your devices, and sometimes you’re asked to remove so many garments you deserve a saucy music soundtrack - but the process is easier and faster if everyone complies courteously. Screening requirements differ at each airport, so read the signs ASAP and prepare your belongings for screening as you approach.


Respect the boarding order

We’ve all seen it. Before the boarding announcement’s even finished, the gate lounge resembles Titanic in reverse. Don’t be part of the stampede, or that dismaying individual barging past the wheelchair passengers and families with small children. If it’s long haul, you’ll be on that aircraft for plenty long enough. Wait for your allotted boarding time.


Keep calm and carry-on

The cabin baggage size and weight restrictions are designed to make everyone’s space more comfortable. Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to check an oversized bag at the gate. And remember, flight attendants are not baggage handlers. “If you pack your own bag, you stack your own bag,” says Kath Newby, a flight attendant on a major Australian airline. Unless you’re elderly, infirm or pregnant, she says, stowing your stuff in the overhead locker is your own responsibility.


Pay attention

It’s smart to listen to the cabin crew’s safety briefing. “And please leave your headphones off for meal service,” says Newby. You wouldn’t be plugged in while speaking to the staff in a restaurant or bar. Use your table manners at altitude, too.


Be an upright citizen

It’s strange and sad that ‘recline rage’ is a thing, but the centimetres between your seatback and the one in front  - the ‘pitch’ -are a mid-air battlefield, with recent disputes even resulting in arrests and flight diversions. When you consider that the tightest seat pitch can be as little as 73cm, it’s no wonder people lose their cool. Debate continues about whether or not you should ever recline in a crammed economy cabin, but flight attendants say one hard and fast rule is never to do it during meal service. “It’s not polite, nor is it safe,” says Chris Lee, a flight attendant on international routes for a major airline. “As well as limiting the space, a reclining seat can spill hot drinks and knock food or utensils onto the passenger behind. We ask all passengers to keep their seats upright during the meal service. We understand that people can forget so don’t feel bad if you’re asked to straighten up. But please do it!”


Lean in

You’re otherwise entitled to recline whenever you want. It’s a right enshrined in your conditions of carriage. But with space at such a premium, should you ever? Just try to be decent about it, advises Lee. “Good practice is to turn round and check with the passenger behind you – or at least let them know you’re about to recline. Then do it slowly.” If that person behind is tall, working on a laptop or managing an infant or small child, consider boosting your karma by not reclining at all, he says. “And you don’t always need to go all the way. Sometimes just a couple of centimetres provides you with enough extra comfort.”


Don’t be a phone pest

Take pity on cabin crews weary of repeatedly urging chatterboxes to end their phone calls as the aircraft prepares for takeoff. Says Newby: “Please - put your phone in flight mode before the third time you’re asked!”


No (downward) dogs allowed

It’s important to stretch and move on long-haul flights, “but the galley is not a place for a yoga class,” cautions Newby. Adds Lee: “While carrying a food tray, I’ve tripped over a passenger doing yoga on the floor by the galley. And I’ve been asked to have a gentle word with a lady whose bending in the aisle was giving another passenger an unwanted close encounter with her behind. We do encourage you to stretch, but standing is safest and please try not to obstruct others.”



Bare feet on an aircraft are a no-no. It’s unlikely even the cleanest tootsies will be odour-free after hours in an airport, so pop on socks. “And shoes too, please, if you have foot odour,” says Newby. Remember, too, that aircraft floors – especially in the toilet- are germ central, so it makes healthy sense to cover your feet.


Dietary dilemmas

“If you’re lactose free, wheat free, gluten free, fat free, vegan, vegetarian or have other dietary needs, it might be wiser to bring something with you to eat,” says Newby. Many airlines allow you to pre-order a range of meal options, but don’t expect your choice if you leave it until in-flight to ask. Extras are rarely carried.


The armrest issue

If you’re in a window seat, the window armrest is yours alone. Same with the aisle, so it follows that the passenger in the middle seat owns the two middle armrests. As ethics professor Kirk Hanson told the Wall street Journal in a 2011 survey on the subject: “The middle passenger gets both armrests, in part as compensation for the dreaded middle seat.”


It’s an exit, not an emergency

Once on the ground, do you really need to flee the plane as if it’s on fire? Instead of congesting the aisles, try taking an extra minute or two to remain in your seat, check for forgotten items and – shock, horror - chill.


Communication is key

Just like the aircraft you’re on, please and thank you go a long way, say both Newby and Lee. “Cabin crews are human too, and we’re there to help make everyone’s flight more comfortable. Please don’t take out your travel frustrations on us!” says Lee. And when it comes to your fellow passengers, he adds, “try to bear in mind that everyone’s probably feeling just like you: tired, cramped, hungry, stressed. Be tolerant. Communication really helps – just a few friendly words or a smile can dissolve tension and remind you that we’re all in it together for the duration of the flight.”


Written by Amy Cooper